When we talk to nonprofit staff, one commonly recurring question is “How can we do better at grant funding?” We’ve leveraged our history and experience in the sector to gather materials for a series of articles on this topic. Our in-depth conversations with foundation and corporate program officers and a wider survey of their peers form the basis of the series. Successful grant proposals may rest on your ability to develop a relationship with your program officer. In this article, Powering Nonprofits will share perspectives of program officers on how nonprofits can inspire confidence and win mission-critical funding.
We’ve all written a great grant proposal, only to get that slim envelope with a polite rejection form letter. Did you ever learn anything about why you were declined, other than the pro forma “we received far more requests for funding than we could meet” explanation? Did you ask the program officer for feedback or suggestions on how to improve future requests? If not, why not?
Asking a program officer to share what they can about why your proposal landed in the “no” pile is a small effort with a potentially big return. Their feedback (and any related feedback from the decision-makers) can fundamentally change your future outcomes.
Obviously, not following submission protocol is cause for immediate rejection—granters receive more applications than they can realistically consider, so applications that don’t meet the submission requirements make rejection easy.
On a grant application, you must provide the requirements. In the grand scheme of things, this shows attention to detail but also evens the playing field for the number of requests foundations receive. Paul Moore, Program Officer, David Bohnett Foundation
It’s possible your proposal never stood a chance because, unbeknownst to you, foundation or trustee priorities changed when you weren’t looking.
It’s also possible that even when you’ve reviewed grant criteria and thought Yes! A match! it can turn out what the grant-giving organization meant wasn’t in line with how you understood it.
A chat with your program officer could have helped in all of these circumstances. It can help clarify that you are speaking the same language, reduce guesswork, and provide you a more realistic sense of the chances of winning funding.
Some foundations are too small to have the capacity for a program officer to be readily available to you; other grant-making organizations field too many applications to be able to take individual time with each applicant. But often, program officers want to talk to you: their role is to provide the trustees with the best applications possible, and in just a few minutes they may offer feedback that can strengthen your proposal or clarify when it’s not a good fit—saving everyone time and effort.
A History To Rely On
As your funding history evolves, your relationship with program officers gains value. When it comes to securing funding for general operations, capacity building, or transition support from foundations that have previously given grants, the things that will make a difference include:
o How well you’ve communicated the outcomes of funding
o Your candor when things haven’t turned out well
o Timeliness with deadlines and reporting requirements
When Things Go Wrong
Foundations understand that not everything works out as planned and generally want to help—within the limits of their charter.
Reporting deadlines can be extended if necessary...it's just a matter of having the conversation with your program officer. If reports are not submitted at all then those organizations aren't eligible to apply for a future grant from MeHAF.-Morgan Hynd, Program Officer II, Maine Health Access Foundation
The good news is that they’ve seen it all before. If things have gone pear-shaped, the best thing to do—as in any relationship that is built on trust—is to be honest about it, as soon as possible.
We all suffer from the tendency to shine only the best light on our efforts; it’s hard to admit when things haven’t gone as expected. But this is where your history of openness and honesty with your program officer can carry the day. We’ve been surprised more than once by a program officer receiving bad news with, in essence, the reply “we expected this… how can we help?” Not being forthright erodes exactly what you need in rough times—trust and support.
So, if you don’t already know your program officers, we recommend that it become Priority #1 in your granting plan for the year!
If you’ve got a stellar relationship with a program officer please share, and Powering Nonprofits may include your story in this series. Following articles will cover common proposal-killing errors, best advice from program officers, and what’s different when working with corporate foundations. Please subscribe to our RSS feed or check back over the next few weeks for updates.
Kara has a lifetime of success in patron engagement and fundraising in North America, and spent two years recently at Birmingham Royal Ballet building systems for engagement.